Cream - Wheels Of Fire (1968) - Album Review

By Sergio Ariza

Planting the seeds of heavy

made it clear from the beginning that modesty did not go with them. The group was formed in 1966 after the three were considered the best on their respective instruments in the UK: Eric Clapton had been proclaimed the God of the electric guitar, Jack Bruce was described as the best bass player and Ginger Baker ‘scoffed at’ Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. As bold as brass they decided to call their band Cream, that is to say, they were the cream of the crop, the best of the best… They had a point but, as can be appreciated on some tracks of this album, mainly the live songs, sometimes they seem to be playing for themselves instead of for others...

This was their third album; it had been preceded by the wonderful Disreali Gears, possibly their most spot-on record, with great songs like Sunshine Of Your Love, Strange Brew and Tales Of Brave Ulysses, and now the band was looking to broaden their sound, with a double album on which both sides were reflected - the studio and live. Both parts open with two of the best songs of their career, two monuments made song: White Room and Crossroads. The first is an original tune, composed by Bruce with lyrics by Peter Brown, and everything about it works perfectly, from its familiar opening to Clapton's magnificent solo with his SG 'The Fool' run through a wah, possibly a Vox. The second is the best cover Clapton has ever done of his beloved
Robert Johnson, a full-fledged reinterpretation of Crossroads in which he turns the Delta blues into the basis for the heaviest rock of the 70s. Clapton shines vocally (on the only song on the whole album in which he takes lead vocals) and, mainly, with the guitar, delivers one of his most incendiary solos.


In those songs you can hear a sublime band in which everyone seems to be rowing in the same direction, with Bruce and Baker also standing out alongside Clapton. On Spoonful sublime moments are mixed with others in which it seems that each musician has stopped listening to their colleagues to show off, all this is exaggerated by two unnecessary songs, Traintime, to the greater glory of Bruce and his way of playing the harmonica, and the 15 minute Baker drum solo on Toad; technical fireworks without soul and quite boring.

The studio album is much better. Cream are many things, great musicians and performers among them, but they are not superlative composers. Bruce is the most prolific and the one who contributes the best songs like the aforementioned White Room and Politician; a song in whose heavy riff you can see the direct influence on the debuts of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath the following year, something that is also proven on their well-known cover of Sitting On Top Of The World by
Howlin' Wolf. The fact is that the drop in tempo and the increase in power of the amplifiers in blues rock would lead to the birth of heavy.


Clapton, who was possibly the most dedicated composer of the three, does not contribute a single song of his own, contenting himself with covers of his idolized Robert Johnson and Albert King, from whom he leaves a good adaptation of Born Under A Bad Sign. However, as a guitarist he is absolutely on fire, like the wheels of the title. His solos on Those Were The Days, the best of Baker's songs, and Deserted Cities of the Heart, elevate those songs above the average.

In short, this is a remarkable album, and very influential, but one on which you can already see the roots of the band’s demise. The reason for that is when Clapton heard the The Band’s debut and saw musicians acting as an ensemble in harmony and not as soloists separately, he would decide that Cream no longer had a future. That view was not entirely true, however, since from the seeds Cream planted, a whole new and flourishing genre would emerge.